Rescued from bondage in Tamil Nadu, tribals work in brick cooperative | Reuters - Firstpost
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Rescued from bondage in Tamil Nadu, tribals work in brick cooperative | Reuters


CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Santa Kumar, who spent nine years in bondage working at a brick kiln in Tamil Nadu, is trying to source soil to make more bricks. He knows that keeping the cooperative brick kiln running is important - it keeps him out of renewed bondage.

One of thousands of Irula tribals rescued from brick kilns and rice mills between 2000 and 2009 in and around Kancheepuram district in Tamil Nadu, Kumar is part of a unique cooperative formed to prevent a second cycle of bondage.

"It is very difficult to run but we have freedom. We own it and that makes everything worth it," Kumar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting in the non-profit Makkal Mandaram commune next to the brick kiln in Mangalapadi village.

"We can take a day off, stop work if there is an emergency. There are no restrictions any more."

Kumar's father, a traditional snake catcher, went into bondage to repay a loan. Kumar was then caught in debt bondage when he took a 20,000 rupee ($300) loan to pay for his marriage.

Father and son worked for nine years to repay their 60,000 rupees ($900) of loans.

India is home to almost half the world's 36 million slaves, according to the 2015 Global Slavery Index produced by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.

Many are duped into working in farms, brothels, small shops and restaurants as security against a loan they have taken or a debt inherited from a relative.

This kind of exploitation is common in the construction sector, particularly in the unregulated areas of brickmaking and stone quarrying, experts say.

There are no official figures on the number of people employed to cut, shape and bake clay-fired bricks, mostly by hand, in tens of thousands of brick kilns in India.

A 2015 paper by the Centre for Science and Environment said at least 10 million people work in kilns, many located on the edge of towns and cities, making them easily accessible for urban builders.

ESCAPER HELPED FREE BONDED LABOURERS

"We were 30 families who worked endlessly because we were told the loan was still unpaid. When another labourer, Selvam, escaped, he brought help and suddenly we were freed," Kumar said.

According to government data, more than a quarter of a million bonded labourers have been rescued and compensated since a government scheme was put in place in 1978. But activists say that many of them slip back into bondage.

"Rescued workers getting into rebondage is a reality because most of them don't have any other skill," said R Geeta of the Unorganised Workers Federation. "Cooperatives are an effective way to provide them with a livelihood using a skill they know."

Aware of the poverty and desperation of Kumar and others, Makkal Mandram first floated the idea of a cooperative brick kiln in early 2000.

"The people rescued had no place to go. They had forgotten where their homes were, having been in bondage for years," said Jessy Gloria, a member of the group.

"They had been enslaved for so long that they had started behaving like slaves. It took many years for them to actually take ownership of the brick kiln."

The kiln was built on land given by the government and started with contributions from the compensation each rescued labourer had received.

"We all gave 9,000 rupees from the 20,000 we got and slowly built the business," Kumar recalled. "We over-baked some bricks, didn't get the process right and suffered losses in the beginning. But we learned from each mistake."

Nearly 10 years later, the "people's brick kiln" has started making marginal profits. Batches of up to 80,000 bricks are sold in and around Kancheepuram.

"The quality of the bricks we make is very good but we are a bit more expensive than other kiln owners, who have easy access to soil on their land. It's a competitive market, but we are surviving," said Geeta Charusivam, also a member of the commune.

Kumar now sends his children to school and his ageing father approves. "My father didn't even dream of this life. We only knew bondage. Now we don't even have to take a loan," said Kumar, before returning to the problem at hand - finding soil for the next batch of bricks.

($1 = 66.43 rupees)

(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

First Published On : Apr 28, 2016 23:24 IST

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